December’s tough decisions

Prime Minister George Papandreou made his mark as foreign minister in a previous PASOK government when, in 1999, he and his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, inaugurated one of those rare – and brief – periods of warmer ties after both their countries were hit by devastating earthquakes. Significantly, a few days after winning elections, Papandreou was in Istanbul, attending an informal meeting of Southeastern Europe’s foreign ministers, making the point that he cares deeply about improving ties with Greece’s large, truculent neighbor. He visited Cem’s grave, where he laid an olive wreath. Papandreou presented his Turkey trip as an informal one – keeping his first official visit, as premier, for Cyprus. He flew to Nicosia this week. The symbolism is clear: Greece wants warmer ties with Turkey but stands solidly beside Cyprus. From now on, though, symbolism will have to give way to concrete steps and strategy. In December, the EU summit will decide whether to move ahead with Turkey’s accession process and whether to open accession talks with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In a progress report on these two and another six candidate countries, on October 14, the European Commission warned Turkey over curbs on freedom of expression and for the crippling fine imposed on the Dogan media group, a decision widely seen as an effort to silence a powerful anti-government voice. Since the start of accession talks in 2004, however, Turkey has also refused to honor a commitment to recognize the Republic of Cyprus. In 2005, the EU declared that this was unacceptable and gave Ankara time to reconsider. Turkey has refused to budge, saying that the breakaway state in northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes, must first be allowed to trade with the EU, signifying de facto recognition. The dynamics of the situation are interesting: One part of the EU, lead by Germany and France, does not want Turkey’s full accession to move ahead, while another bloc, which includes Britain, Sweden (which currently holds the EU presidency) and many Eastern European countries, would like to see closer ties as soon as possible. Greece and Cyprus support Turkey’s EU bid but only when it conforms to the bloc’s principles – which obviously include recognizing the member states. If any effort is made to draw Turkey closer to the European Union without Turkey changing tack, then the Greeks and Cypriots will be forced to use their veto, with predictable consequences in the course of Greek-Turkish relations. This makes the current talks between Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat so important: In the unlikely event of a deal between them, Turkey’s candidacy could get a strong and perhaps irreversible boost. The same EU summit in December will determine how soon FYROM’s accession talks will begin. There was great jubilation in Skopje and other towns last week, at the prospect of EU candidacy, when the European Commission noted that the country had made great progress. But the report also noted that FYROM has not yet solved the bilateral dispute with Greece over its name. If the subject comes up in December and there has been no breakthrough in bilateral talks, Papandreou will have to follow his conservative predecessor’s vote at the NATO summit in Bucharest last year and veto FYROM’s accession. Policymakers in Ankara and Skopje will do well to consider the following: George Papandreou has a track record of taking risks to improve Athens’s relations with its neighbors. He also has a comfortable majority in Parliament, where the opposition is in disarray. With his youthful new government riding high in the polls, this is a rare opportunity for inspired (though difficult) decisions on foreign policy. But this will be possible only if Turkey stops provocative military flights in the Aegean and contributes to solving the Cyprus problem – and when Skopje gives up its maximalistic arrogance and acknowledges that friendly relations with Greece are the only guarantee of EU membership, prosperity and security.